Almost a hundred years ago, deep in the forests of Quebec, an unlikely friendship formed between Félix Leclerc and Frank MacPherson. Felix was a white poet from La Tuque and Frank was a black chemical engineer from Jamaica. The latter would inspire Leclerc’s hit song “MacPherson”, penned in honour of this unfaltering connection. In early 20th century Canada, racial segregation in all aspects of private and public life ensured that this companionship remained a rare anomaly.
Animator and painter Martine Chartrand documented this friendship in her film MacPherson, a paint-on-glass animation in 35mm that took almost a decade to complete. In the process, she discovered a deep connection to MacPherson’s story. As an adopted child, part Haitian and part Canadian, she found herself longing to trace her black roots through this mysterious figure.
Serge Giguère, longtime filmmaker and friend, saw an opportunity to tell the story of a woman on a mission for identity, understanding and closure. The result is Finding MacPherson, a delicate film that documents the ties that bind us all together throughout history.
We sat down with Serge to discuss his documentary method, black history in Canada and the benefits of just letting the camera roll.
What attracted you to Martine, MacPherson and the search for black identity in Canada?
Martine and I were friends before the film began. Most of my films are portraits, but this is the first film I made about a woman. One morning in 2002 she said, “Tomorrow I will leave to meet with logging men. I want to investigate if they knew Frank MacPherson. Do you want to come?” She knew I was making a film about old people and thought I may find something of interest to me. But when I got in the car to make the trip and she saw the small camera I had brought with me, she said, “No. You will not do that.” And that’s how it began. After that, I saw that MacPherson was a quest for her. At that time, it was my main interest to see how the quest of this adopted woman turns out, one who was taken in by a white family and was now looking for her black roots in Canada. I didn’t know at that time how it would turn out. In the beginning, she researched who was the real MacPherson who inspired the song. The passion that Martine had for this subject was like searching for a family member. I started with her journey, but I opened to the bigger subject. We explored what it meant to investigate black peoples’ roots in this country. And of course, Martine is a real character. She is funny, and she is very emotional. She is a wonderful artist.
You’ve said in the past that you have an affection for unremarkable subjects.
I do. I like people who are not stars.
Was it difficult to convince Martine to take on the central role in this film? She is extremely soft-spoken and seems quite introverted.
It was. I met with her often and shot her a lot. Sometimes, she would over-perform for the camera. She would tease me. But I would wait for the real moments, and sometimes I would provoke her emotions. In 2009, I was a bit fed up! If I could have given back the money I spent, I would have. Sometimes I didn’t know where I was going with this film. I tried to ask Martine about her relationship with her adopted family, but she told me already that the subject was off-limits. But when the earthquake happened in Haiti, it shook her emotionally. Her father was Haitian, so it moved something in her core. At that point, she opened up. Sometimes you have events that are so out of your control, and they change the course of your life forever. I wait for those moments when filming a documentary.
There are two moments when you highlight children in the film. Both times, classrooms of children both in Canada and Jamaica are genuinely eager to learn about the history of MacPherson.
Martine is also a teacher, in addition to a filmmaker and painter. Every occasion to meet black people is important for her. She feels like it’s a mission to upgrade her identity. The Haitian students in Montreal were fascinated with her work, and Martine made a special mission to Jamaica to see where MacPherson went to school. She wanted to show the current students her animated film. We phoned and arranged it, and it was almost like a blind date. We had no idea how it would turn out. But it’s fascinating because that is the one school in Kingston, Jamaica where white men and black men learned together at that time. This was around 1739. It was important to both Martine and to me.
Martine emphasizes the lack of Canadian black history in art, education, community and civic matters. Has it always been a passion of yours to highlight this shortcoming?
No, not really. My passions always stem from the people whose portraits I am creating. This was not my fight before I became involved with Martine but through her I understood that the recognition is not there. In the film, Martine told me that we missed something. Michael MacPherson, Frank MacPherson’s nephew, showed us that Frank went to the war from 1917 to 1919, at which time he studied at McGill. He went to the Canadian Forestry Corps, it was a battalion formed to construct the railroad. Historical facts like these are essential to include in education and history. Tracing the roots of black people in Canada is important for young Canadian citizens of today.
There is a powerful scene in which Martine is seen walking away from the camera, leaving a trail of tracks in the snow. There is no music and no camera movement. She comments that her tracks are like proof of her existence, speaking to the erasure of black people from Canadian history and, subsequently, the fragmented nature of black identity in modern Canada. Can you tell me what inspired you here?
For many years, I worked with directors who would cut a shot as soon as the subject was finished speaking. As the cinematographer I would whisper in their ears, “Don’t stop, keep rolling.” Sometimes, you have to let the shot finish. If people are leaving, don’t shut the camera off immediately. When you think the moment is over, go on for a little while longer.
How would you sell this film to an indifferent would-be viewer?
It’s difficult to attract viewers to this type of film because it’s not a hot subject. But when they are there, they will find that this is a rich subject matter. It is a constant journey of discovery, uncovering new things about yourself and those around you. Uncovering parts of history you didn’t know existed.
By Elizabeth Haq